Only yesterday, I called my adult daughter to ask her to tell me I was an okay writer.
My mother once knitted and donated an entire barnyard full of stuffed animals — a grey horse with glorious mane and mini bridle, a cow with black spots and pink udders, and pigs with soft, felted snouts — to the annual Christmas fair at the Catholic school we attended. I remember the timid pride in her eyes as she lovingly tucked the animals into their special boxes and brought them to the organizers the night before the event.
It was my first year at the school — fifth grade — and the atmosphere of the gymnasium on that Saturday morning was as unsettling on the weekend as it was during the week. The smell of boiling hot dogs and warm popcorn filtered in from the adjacent cafeteria as a cute boy from my grade brushed by. The popular girls stood under the basketball net in their cheerleader uniforms having just come back from an away game, their cheeks rosy with the health that comes from being part of an accepted clan.
I trailed a few steps behind my mother who browsed disinterestedly at the lacy plaques and decorated wooden spoons. Even then I had an aversion to frills and cheap prettiness like my mother. I don’t know if she had ever said a word about such things or if she’d passed it through blood into her children. Just like my mother I sought the knitted animals, hoping if they didn’t sell that they would come back home.
Not a single person said hello to us, and we made no effort either as we wound down the crowded aisles of holiday shoppers. After a pile of “seconds” socks my mother stood still. I came beside her and followed her gaze. There were the animals, bent and thrown about like useless cattle in a muddy feedlot. One of the pigs lay on the floor muddied by someone’s boot. My mother’s face showed no expression whatsoever. After a moment she scooped up the pig, brushed it off quickly and set it down on the table, as if she were ashamed to have anyone see that she had given her heart to this project, before pulling us away to get promised hot dogs. She never made animals again.
My father, a brilliantly funny and smart man, took codeine once before public speaking to ease his anxiety. His thirst was so severe and his mind so benumbed with the drug, he could not connect with his audience and came home in shame.
My poison of choice has been a sort of misguided humanitarianism. I profess to love the world but have real trouble with the individuals. The world does not beat me down, but individuals do and have. Don’t get me wrong, I have many wonderful relationships, but when I’m in poison mode I unwittingly seek the drowning man who in his own panic and self-loathing drags the rescuer into the murky deep.
I think sometimes that one of the reasons some readers express frustration and annoyance when reading about BUCK CRENSHAW in my novels is that he’s so blind to his self-sabotage. Time and again he makes such stupid decisions. He can also be cruel — not the best thing in a lead character. Yet I’m cruel, too, when I feel unloved.
Our genealogy bequeaths us with some pretty annoying habits: silence, explosive anger, neediness, reticence, inability to give an honest compliment or honest criticism. My sister didn’t speak to me for years because she knew that I had married a mess of a man (it had seemed easier than losing a good man’s love). It would have been nice if someone had told me what they were thinking back then.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past. All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born.”William Faulkner
Since Thanksgiving I’ve been thinking about all this stuff again because as a family for generations we’ve let our hurts define us. I’ve spent years being just like Buck, blind to the patterns that come with being overprotective of self. As a child it makes total sense, but as an adult it dampens out creativity and joy. How many more holiday dinners will I spend racing through a meaningful story because I’m afraid of the response from “my audience”? My family around the table seems so distant in these moments, like the shadows you see when you’re on stage.
I read this a few days ago:
Travel and tell no one, live a true love story and tell no one, people ruin beautiful things. Kahlil Gilbran
I’m not sure I completely agree but I understand the advice.
As some of you know, we adopted a profoundly traumatized child from foster care. I’m going to be honest and say that part of the reason for me taking her on was to prove that I was a valuable person despite not selling a ton of books. Of course at the time I wasn’t fully aware of my underlying reasons. I did truly want to help her “get better.”
Here’s another truth: she doesn’t want to get better. It’s easier to stay the victim. I understand. It is easier in a way. But it’s terrible. She’s like the living embodiment of all the worst case self-sabatoges. And because of that she becomes quite often extremely unlovable. It makes me think of Buck. It makes me think of me.
Of course there are moments when we are all lovable, when the drama, the noise, the self-doubt, the picking at wounds still can’t shut out the beauty of a human soul. I think all of my Buck Crenshaw stories are treasure hunts. Behind all of his self-protection is a boy who had hoped to be loved but wasn’t. Spolier alert: he finds love.
We have all experienced being unloved at some point. Sometimes we invite it in and sometimes it just crashes into your house like a wayward airplane. We idealize home for the holidays because in that womb we still hope it is safe even if it never has been. We want our little barnyard menagerie to be cuddled. We want our books to be read, our dreams to be understood and for our family to come with a clean slate and endless patience to put up with our egos and idiosyncracies. In short we want to be adored.
“Your life is your medicine.”Dr. Cassie Huckabee
What medicine will I choose?